Medallion Matters: The History And Care Of Plaster Ceiling Medallions

Popular in 19th-century homes, plaster ceiling medallions provide a visual transition and place for a lamp in key rooms. Their elaborate bas-relief designs also helped hide soot from oil and gas lamps.

They were de rigueur in the main entrance, drawing rooms, dining room and master bedrooms. In Brooklyn, you won’t find them in small side bedrooms, hallways or bathrooms, where wall sconces would be used, nor in kitchens, where a J-hook could hang over the sink.

As you might expect, medallion styles changed along with other interior fashions and are one of many clues to a building’s age. Greek Revival and Italianate medallions often use leaf motifs. At its simplest, such a medallion could consist of leaves attached directly to the ceiling and radiating from a rosette in the center. Plain moldings or beads can surround the fanciful center trim. Elaborate variations in do-good houses can be layered over bits of trellis or other background patterns and studded with blossoms. A medallion can be made entirely by hand on site, cast on site in a mold, or built using a combination of methods.

An elaborate leaf medallion anchors a chandelier in a 1914 photo of the dining room at the circa 1806 Commander’s House in Vinegar Hill. Photo via the National Archives

In the late 1800s, in Brooklyn Neo-Grec medallions were usually made from molds in angular and asymmetrical shapes, such as two superimposed stars or a diamond fused with an oval. Ornamentation can include a mix of foliate and neoclassical motifs.

Subsequent Queen Anne-style medallions were more subdued and less exotic. Shapes can be round or square. Stylized and flattened leaf, flower and vine patterns, similar to William Morris wallpaper, were popular. A medallion for a smaller center parlor can have a simpler all-over geometric pattern, such as basketweave.

A return to the neoclassical style towards the end of the century brought back Adams-style medallions in round and oval shapes with teeth, swags, stripes, and scrolls.

Plaster rosette samples from the circa 1909 catalog of the Architectural Decorating Company of Chicago

Plaster rosette samples from the circa 1909 catalog of the Architectural Decorating Company of Chicago. Image via Building Technology Heritage Library

Regardless of the era, medallions are usually centered in a room. They do not necessarily correspond to other elements, such as fireplaces, windows, doors or the placement of medallions in other rooms. Swinging medallions from room to room can be obscured by molding screens and pocket doors.

It’s worth noting that parlors in large, Italianate brownstones from the 1860s and 1870s often feature elaborate plaster ceilings of which the medallion is an integral part. A pronounced cornice with heavy brackets typically anchors the ceiling. The ceiling is divided by panels that surround an elaborate medallion, much like a fountain between planting beds in a formal parterre garden.

Medallions can be white or cream or polychrome. As with painted cornices, medallion colors were pale and soft, so as not to compete with the darker and heavier walls. Examples with original paint include survivors at the Linley Sambourne home in London and the Frank G. Edwards home in San Francisco. A round medallion in the latter’s drawing room, designed in 1883 for a wallpaper and carpet importer, is painted mainly in cream and deep cream tones, with delicate washes of melon and dots of terracotta picking up stronger hues elsewhere in the country. room.

a Colonial Revival medallion in a circa 1901 Benjamin Driesler home in Prospect Heights

A Colonial Revival medallion in a circa 1901 Benjamin Driesler home in Prospect Heights. Photo by Susan De Vries

Broken, damaged or missing plaster medallions can be repaired or replicated by a master plasterer. Stock medallions come in a variety of materials as standard, although the style options are limited. Before starting any construction where the vibrations could damage existing plaster, such as cutting walls for electrical wiring, fixing medallions and other decorative plaster, ideally in consultation with a master plasterer. Later nineteenth century medallions often have openings large enough to allow a new electrical box to pass through without cracking or breaking, but earlier or delicate medallions may require expert handling to be successfully reconnected to code.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Brownstoner magazine.

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